John Stuart Mill's Essay On Liberty

J. S. Mill The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." — John Stuart Mill, Essay on Liberty (Library of Liberal Arts edition, p.13)

The renowned essay On Liberty was written by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and published in 1859, the year in which Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published. On Liberty contains a rational justification of the freedom of the individual in opposition to the claims of the state to impose unlimited control, and has become a classic of libertarian philosophy.

In this essay Mill also warns of a second danger to liberty, which democracies are prone to, namely, the tyranny of the majority. In a representative democracy, if you can control the majority (and get them to vote for, and elect, your candidates) then you can control everyone (because your candidates, once "democratically elected", will pass whatever laws are needed for this, as was done by Hitler's agents in the 1930s in Nazi Germany and seems to be happening today in the U.S.A.).

Here's what Mill writes in the Introduction to On Liberty about the tyranny of the majority:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts edition, p.7.

In which kind of social system does liberty thrive best — or in which kind of social system is liberty least threatened? Some believe that liberty is is best safeguarded by democracy — but this is very doubtful, at least if democracy is taken to mean simply a system in which political representatives are elected every now and again. Voters in many Western countries are apathetic because they believe that their vote actually makes no difference. As has been said of so-called democratic elections in the U.S.: Whoever wins, the people lose.

Neither the word "democracy" nor its derivatives occur in the U.S. Declaration of Independence or in the U.S. Constitution. Yet because of an 80-year propaganda campaign the American public has been brainwashed to believe that "democracy" was what the American Founding Fathers wished to establish on the North American continent (as a model for the world). As the article by Robert Welch (below) makes clear, the truth is precisely the opposite. The Founding Fathers framed the U.S. Constitution so as to protect Americans from democracy.

These days the word "democracy" is bandied about by many politicians, high government mucketymucks and U.S. imperialist stooges in S. E. Asia and elsewhere as if it were a noble ideal that everyone should support unquestioningly — and preferably unthinkingly. (It's getting so that when I hear the word "democracy" uttered by a politician or government official I automatically reach for my BS detector.) Could this official rhetoric disguise a more sinister intent? Could this apparent "pro-democracy activism" in fact disguise a drive toward a one-world government by which the ideal of a totalitarian fascist government, dear to the hearts (if they have hearts) of the U.S. imperialists in Washington would be extended to cover the entire globe?

The important question is not whether the people can (or are graciously permitted to) vote every few years to elect their "representatives" (who usually turn out to be the paid agents of their oppressors) but rather whether they can live their lives and raise their children as they wish, free from intrusive government interference in their private affairs (and even in their private thoughts). Clearly many who live in a so-called democracy, such as the U.S.A., cannot.

"I have often thought that if a rational Fascist dictatorship were to exist, then it would choose the American system." — Noam Chomsky, Language and Responsibility

The drive toward a totalitarian police state in the U.S.A. continues as fast as its instigators can push it without arousing the attention of the television-besotted public. The latest abomination is the Counter-Terrorism Bill. See Harry Browne on anti-terrorist proposals and America's Reichstag Fire

All who value their liberty and are concerned by government encroachment upon their lives will find of great interest the New Declaration of Independence (in which, as in the original U.S. Declaration of Independence, the word "democracy" does not occur).


There is a second danger to human culture other than that of tyrannical government, namely, that of the universal triumph of mindlessness. America and the rest of the world were, for several centuries preceding the 20th, literate cultures, in which reading and writing were central, in which rationality was the norm. With the rise of mass communications (telegraphy, radio, television and computers) we have entered a new cultural era, one which may turn out to be a cultural wasteland.

Neil Postman has written lucidly on this theme in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Here is the Foreword and an extract from Chapter 5.

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